So you want to be an illustrator? Take tips from a professional

Talented artist Emily Portnoi is well practiced in the art of illustration, and of building a business around her talents. We called on this creative woman’s know-how for those who’d like to follow a similarly creative path. Here’s what she said:

There can be a lot more to being a successful illustrator than just being a fabulous artist (although obviously this helps). Over the years that I’ve been working as an illustrator, I’ve picked up some great tips and tricks to work smarter, save myself time and win work. Here’s what I recommend:

1. Network and collaborate

As a lone illustrator you’ll hopefully get work, but it can’t hurt to be able to offer something bigger. So meeting with, and teaming up with, good photographers, graphic designers and copywriters can be a great way of bagging a bigger project and expanding your portfolio. It’s also handy to have people you feel confident to recommend.

I often get asked if I know a good copy editor or a great photographer. When I can come up with one, it not only makes the client happy, but it means I know I’m going to be working with good talent… and it might just mean they recommend me to another client in the future.

2. Get digital while staying old school

For those of you illustrating by hand, and a little resistant to working digitally, consider exploring a middle ground. For lots of my line-work I start with paper, pen and ink or pencil.  I have a Wacom pen a tablet, which I use daily, but have never felt I truly get the same effect using brushes in Illustrator and Photoshop as I do by hand.

I like the irregularity of a hand-drawn line. But, once the drawing is finished, I will always scan it in and usually turn it into vectors using Image Trace in Illustrator. The settings for this tool are now super sensitive, so you can preserve the beautiful irregularity of your line-work. Now you can scale it to any size you like; you can edit it; you can colour it; you can duplicate it or you can make it into a repeating pattern. On some occasions I will then use Illustrator or Photoshop to add textures fills, or I’ll scan more hand-drawn textures or elements to finish the illustration.

Community - Emily Portnoi

3. Keep on saving

I like to save my work at almost every stage of my illustrating process; including keeping all my old sketch pad, computer folders of scanned illustrations, or multiple versions of Illustrator and Photoshop documents. You never know when the client might want to revisit something you showed them three rounds ago. Or, a new project might be able to re-purpose some of your development work from a previous project.

A logical computer filing system sounds very dull, but can be a life saver. My preference is for adding ‘V1’, ‘V2’ and ‘V3’ to the end of file names, but you might go for something more descriptive. Resist the temptation to ever name a file ‘Final’. I promise you’ll end up with a whole folder of ‘Final’ files and a lot of confusion!

4. Be as flexible as possible

I often draw all the elements of an illustration separately then bring them together on the computer. This allows me to edit individual details without having to redraw large sections of the image. For example, if I were drawing a scene with two people on a bench: once it’s finished it’s not unlikely that the client might say to me: ‘please can you remove the second person on the bench’, but if I haven’t drawn the full bench then this becomes a bit of a nightmare. So my approach is to use layout paper (if drawing by hand) or layers (if drawing on the computer). Draw the full bench, then put another sheet of layout paper over it (or layer on top of it) draw the first person, then the same thing again for the second person.

Emily Portnoi

As well as this, I recommend always leaving more bleed than you think necessary. If your illustration is supposed to go to the edge, there is a chance that for the final version the client may want to move the main focus to the right or left, and if you have no extra bleed, you may have to go right back to the initial drawing stage or try and bodge some extra background rather than just changing the crop.

5. Have style

My illustration work has been very varied over the year, and for a while I prided myself on being a bit of an illustrator chameleon, able to pastiche many styles; but, actually, this isn’t what gets you work. What will have people knocking on your door is a style they recognise as yours and want on their project. A certain amount of flexibility is great and of course your style will evolve, but a signature style will get your name known.

So, take the time to figure out your style, your medium and your working method, then do your best to showcase that with an online portfolio. It’s always tempting with portfolios to put almost all of your work on, in an attempt to attract as many types of clients as you can (I am very guilty of this); but hold back. Showing less work can conveys confidence, so try to only put work on that is in the style that you would like to be employed to do more of.

I guarantee the type of clients you really want are the ones who want your best work and are employing you for your unique style!


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Sonya Gellert

Sonya Gellert is a contributing writer and associate editor for Khoollect. She lives in Sydney....

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Want to see more of Emily's work?

Check out her website, Pinterest, book and project work for more illustrated inspiration!